Big guns back Clinton's China visit

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THREE FORMER presidents and a galaxy of America's great and good, including former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, have put their weight behind President Bill Clinton's policy of engagement with China in an open letter addressed to Congress.

Their full-page letter, which was printed in leading American newspapers yesterday, argued that normalising trade with Peking, and encouraging China to be a "full participant in the international system and institutions which the US has taken the lead in creating", was in America's "vital national security interests".

The letter reinforced the arguments for engagement presented by President Clinton in a speech to the National Geographic Society last week. In the speech he defended his coming visit to China as furthering US interests in a way that isolating China would not.

Next week, Mr Clinton will become the first American president to make an official visit to China since the Chinese army crushed the pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989. His agreement to take part in an official welcoming ceremony in the vicinity of the square has been strongly criticised by human rights groups in the US.

In Congress, opposition has been mounting to the visit. The Republican majority leader in the Senate, Trent Lott, has accused Mr Clinton of "finessing" his visit according to a script dictated by Peking. Republican objections have deviated from human rights considerations however. Instead, they have focused on accusations, supported in part by a Pentagon report, that China has used US satellites for military purposes and continues to supply missile technology to Iran.

The political sensitivity of these allegations is such that the White House was moved to respond almost at once. In a highly unusual move, it released confidential internal documents of its own, detailing discussions inside the Administration about waiving post-Tiananmen sanctions to permit the satellite sales. Senior White House officials have gone into print to defend the sales.

In another attempt to mollify opposition to Mr Clinton's visit, the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, told a Congressional committee this week that the President would use the opportunity in Peking to raise US concerns about nuclear proliferation, and about China's co-operation with Iran in missile technology.

Unconfirmed reports say US officials are discussing an agreement with China according to which both countries will agree not to target nuclear missiles at each other. A report, purportedly leaked from the Central Intelligence Agency, caused a stir in the US two weeks ago by warning that China still had missiles targeted on nine US cities. The Chinese ambassador in Washington has publicly questioned both the authenticity and accuracy of the report, denying that China represented any threat.

The CIA has refused to comment on the report, fuelling suspicions in some quarters that the "report" could be little more than a pretext for a high-profile, but strategically insignificant announcement during Mr Clinton's visit. The US already has such an agreement with Russia. China is said to be holding out for a matching agreement on "no first use" of nuclear weapons, an undertaking Washington has refused to make.

t The Dalai Lama said yesterday he expects President Clinton to raise the question of Tibetan autonomy during his China visit. The Chinese embassy in Washington accused accused the Dalai Lama this week of seeking the "restoration of feudal serfdom of old Tibet". In a letter published in the Washington Post on Monday the embassy warned that the Tibetan people would never let this happen.